It was dark, so dark that we couldn’t see anything beyond the truck’s headlights, only the faint outlines of the dam and Umlani’s tree house, our home for the night.
The moon had not yet risen, and the stars were not yet bright. Hendrick stopped the truck and scoped out the area first before he would let us out. He climbed up the tree house ladder and shone his big flashlight around the tree and the platform. When all was clear, he warned us, “Don’t leave the tree house. If you do, and a lion or a leopard is nearby, something bad could happen.” Hendrick’s tone was serious; he did not smile or joke. Equipping us with a radio and spot lamp, he waited while we climbed up the steep ladder; the girls to the first floor, boys to the second. Then he left, and the night was silent.
I sat on the wooden platform and listened and strained to see as my son pointed the spot light around the dam. Nothing but a flash of white. A bird on the water’s edge. I was scared of what I could not see or hear. Only hours earlier, in daylight and with a guide, we’d seen elephants at this very dam and lions not too far away. And rhinos, too, and cape buffalo and hyena. At least a half a mile from the lodge, we were out in the bush, in the Timbavati National Reserve in South Africa.
The moon rose, and we listened to the lions calling to each other across the bush, interrupted only by birds. I peered intently but could only see trees and bushes shadowed against the sky and the land. After an hour or so of watching and listening to the night’s blackness, we settled down to sleep on mattresses with sheets and comforters and pillows all enclosed in white mosquito netting. Or rather everyone else slept and slept well. I awoke at 1:30 a.m. and listened and peered through the tree house boards at the sky. I crawled out from under the netting and sat on the wooden floor but only for a moment, before I crept back to the false security of my enclosed bed.
Two hours later I awoke again, this time determined not to miss a sound or a sight. Wrapping myself in a blanket, I sat outside my bed and watched and listened. Not seeing anything and hearing only the piercing calls of the birds, I wished then that our guide was with us, to identify the sounds of the night. I listened and reveled in the experience, my eyes wide open.
When I woke my sleeping family just before sunrise, my daughter said in surprise, “We made it!” The four of us watched the bush reappear in the rising sun’s light, eventually hearing the sounds of the truck coming to pick us up.
Moses, our ranger called up to us, “Hurry, the lions are nearby.” We grabbed our things and scurried down the ladder, eager to begin another safari.